The West is burning

Lives and businesses can be lost to heat and drought

Range fires across Nevada have become a source of political conflict.

Range fires across Nevada have become a source of political conflict.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is trying to cope with drought and heat across the West.

And U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said Western heat and fires are signs of climate change.

The heat and fires jeopardize the livelihood of ranchers who depend on grazing, and threaten urban areas like Reno that depend on snowpacks for their water supplies.

“Since last fall and winter, we have been working with grazers across the West in anticipation of tough conditions related to drought,” said BLM deputy director Neil Kornze in a prepared statement. “In southwestern Montana, for example, the BLM worked with permitted ranchers to graze no more than 70 percent of their allotted forage on BLM-managed lands. As drought conditions continue, wild horses, livestock, and wildlife that rely on rangeland forage and water will face extremely challenging conditions that may leave them in very poor condition. We are taking action to address these situations as quickly and as effectively as we can, but our options are increasingly limited by conditions on the land.”

In Nevada, the BLM has been trucking 5,000 gallons of water day, five days a week to four locations for wild horses. A veterinarian was expected to be in Lincoln County this week. BLM employees reported that horses were not eating or drinking, raising questions about their health.

“The West is burning,” Reid said in Nevada on July 17. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a fire in the Spring Mountains, Charleston range like we just had.”

“The West is being devastated by wildfires,” Reid said a day later in D.C. “Millions of acres are burning. Millions of acres have burned. … They’re occurring all over. Why? Because the climate has changed. The winters are shorter, the summers are hotter.”

Nineteen firefighters were killed in the Yarnell fire in Arizona.

“Climate change is an extremely important issue for me, and I hope we can address it reasonably,” Reid also said. “It’s something, as we’ve seen with these storms that are overwhelming our country and the world, we need to do something about it.”

His comments drew sharp online responses outside the scientific community.

Former Las Vegas Review-Journal editor Thomas Mitchell wrote on his website, “Got a problem? Harry’s got a scapegoat. Bad breath? Blame climate change. Flooding? Global warming. Drought? Climate change. Wildfires? You guessed it.”

The leading scientists at concluded a commentary on Reid’s comments with, “So, proof that Reid is senile, demented and oblivious to reality.”

Las Vegas Badger posted this: “Sadly, Senile/Coward/Liar Harry Reid continues to make a complete ass of himself and keeps on embarrassing Nevada.”

A reader on a site called called posted this, addressed to Reid: “I suppose the ‘Dust Bowl Days’ were also caused by Global Warming or Climate Change. I repeat, YOU SIR ARE AN IDIOT!”

In the main article at that site, this appeared: “Senator Harry Reid’s off on another climate change kick, blaming wildfires in the Western U.S. on man-made climate change. … One of the fires Reid cited, in Nevada, was sparked by lightning, as was the terrible Yarnell fire in Arizona. Many tweeters aren’t buying what Harry’s selling.”

If Reid must do without the support of “many tweeters,” however, he can probably make do with the support of science.

Scientists heard from

Fires in the U.S. will double in their destructive power in the next 37 years, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report published in January by the scientific journal Science Findings. Forest Service scientists James M. Vose, David L. Peterson and Toral Patel-Weynand wrote the report, which concluded, “The projected changes will likely lead to even more disturbance from insect outbreaks, forest fire, and drought. … Fire suppression efforts will likely be more costly as climate warms and fires become larger and more frequent, and as more houses are built in the wildland-urban interface.” Tree mortality will become worse, they reported.

For every degree Celsius that Earth temperatures rise, according to the report, the acreage burned in the West could quadruple.

The New York Times reported last week that scientists say hotter, deadlier range fires have become “part of the new normal” in the West.

“The fire season has lengthened substantially, by two months, over the last 30 years,” research ecologist Craig Allen of the U.S. Geological Survey told the Times.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on July 18 that global temperatures have been above above the 20th century average for 340 straight months, as of June 2013—nearly three decades.

“The footprint of the drought has changed little over the last month, but the places that are receiving drought have mostly experienced intensifying drought, including parts of the Southwest and into the Great Basin,” according to NOAA climatologist Jake Crouch in an interview with E&E Publishing.

Nearly all climate scientists believe that greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide generated by fossil fuel use, are causing higher planetary temperatures. This consensus has been documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Geneva in four massive surveys of scientists since 1992, and a fifth is expected next year. The fourth report was completed in 2007 (“Global warming comes home,” RN&R, Feb. 8, 2007) and found that warming of the planetary climate is certain, that most of it has happened since mid-20th century, that upward of 90 percent of it is caused by human activity, and the likelihood of it being caused solely by the planet’s natural activity is less than 5 percent.

As for Nevada, research biologist Jeanne C. Chambers of the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Reno has reported that climate warming is causing an increase in precipitation across most of the Great Basin, a decline in the snowpack since about 1950—an alarming trend for Reno—and earlier arrival of spring which can have an impact on streamflow and seasonal changes in plant life.

Reid seemed to relish taking on climate change deniers, planting a question at a news conference and using language that appeared intended to provoke them.

Some of his online critics tend to believe that because the Spring Mountain fire in Nevada was caused by a lightning strike, it undercut Reid’s argument. But on drier terrain in heat and drought, lightning strikes are more likely to start fires.

Media Matters, an organization that monitors news coverage, said that since April of this year, most media have failed to put coverage of fires into a climate change context.

“Only 6 percent of total wildfire items mentioned climate change, including 9 percent of major print coverage and 4 percent of TV coverage,” the group said.